(Wren stick image courtesy Dennis Flynn)
The wren, the wren,
The king of all birds.
St. Stephen’s Day he was caught in the furze.
Although he was little,
His honour was great.
Rise up kind lady and give us a treat.
Up with the kettle,
And down with the pan.
Give us a penny to bury the wren.
A pocketful of money,
And a cellar full of cheer.
And we wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
—as recited by Dennis Flynn
The wren is just one of several Christmastime house-visiting traditions that continue here today. Typically, children and/or adults will visit homes within their community carrying around an effigy of a small bird—the wren. Upon entry into a home, they usually recite a poem about the wren and may offer some kind of performance, be it song, joke, or recitation. Often the host will offer up food, drink, or money for the visit. Unlike other house-visiting traditions, there are no disguises involved.
The wren tradition is known to take place in Ireland and England where, in previous times, wrenboys would hunt a wren, kill it, and visit homes reciting a poem that asked for money to give the bird a proper burial. A feather from the wren might be offered to the patrons for good luck. Several weeks ago I caught up with Dennis Flynn of Colliers who has been involved with the wren since childhood. He explains,
Growing up we used to participate in a tradition called the visitation of the wren. We never ever called it that. That’s a very official title. We always just referred to it as going around with the wren, or doing the wren…. It was a Christmas visitation. We always took part on December 26th which everyone nowadays calls Boxing Day. But we always called it St. Stephen’s Day…. Basically the idea would be that you’d go around on St. Stephen’s Day, as a group of boys. I did it from when I was about 10 years old until about 14….We weren’t doing it necessarily to preserve any cultural tradition. We were entrepreneurial. We were kids and this was the era of twenty-cent comic books…. So for us, it was this opportunity to go around and visit some people and entertain them a little bit, and make a few cents as kids.
Check out our recorded presentation of The King of All Birds, with moderator Dale Jarvis, and speakers Dennis Flynn and Bev & Eugene Kane. This fascinating forum took place during our 2021 Mummers Festival.
The wren stick, as Dennis calls it, describes an effigy of a wren, drawn on paper or carved from wood and attached to a stick. The wren sticks that Dennis made as a child would often take a beating in harsh winter weather and so a new one would be made every year. He described whittling a splinter of wood into a dowel and attaching a bird to the top, hand-drawn and cut from a Tetley tea box (photo courtesy Dennis Flynn). Another year, he recalled, his wren was cut from a piece of thick wallpaper.
Dennis said he learned about the wren from his father who, in turn, learned about the tradition from his father. Over the years in Colliers the tradition has taken on various forms. Dennis spoke about Colliers resident, John Ryan, who, along with other community members, incorporated into the tradition, their own version of a song by Tommy Makeham and Liam Clancey called “Children’s Medley” which includes several lines about the wren. Dennis recalled,
There’s a line in there where they say, ‘Mrs. Clancey’s a very fine woman, a very fine woman, a very fine woman. Mrs. Clancey’s a very fine woman. She gave us a penny to bury the wren.’ But John and all those guys would come in, and if they went to Mrs. Murphy’s, well Mrs. Murphy would be the very fine woman, or Mrs. Whelan would be the very fine woman. So they customized it all the way along.
Today, the tradition continues in Colliers amongst some of the youth. According to Dennis, it was a way to bring youth together with older people within the community. He said,
It’s one thing for me or you to go, as adults. But to introduce the kids—the young people—to go, you have to have a little impetus for them. So to say, ‘Oh, let’s colour up a wren, and let’s go and tell this story, and she’ll give you a few candy.’ Perfect. So before you’ve realized it, you’ve indoctrinated them in the culture of visiting…. And that’s exactly what it is. You have literally introduced them into a rite of passage of visiting people—of having a respect and an appreciation of older folks and traditions without them realizing what’s happened…. You’ve made it fun for them.
For Dennis, doing the wren during the Christmas season seems to reflect some of the community values he holds dear:
Being a neighbour meant more than physical proximity…. It actually meant going and implicating yourself in their lives in a positive way. And that’s what the wren visitation sort of symbolizes to me, even today. It’s that ability to just take an interlude in Christmas…. It’s that excuse to knock on the door and do something pleasant and have that immediate recognition.